28th Oct 2016

Toilet rolls and gay apps to feature in Dutch vote on Ukraine

  • Many recipients of subsidies said they will hand out flyers to tell Dutch voters about the EU-Ukraine referendum. (Photo: Roel Driever)

What do a bus tour, flyers, a music video, an online voting aid for gay people, and toilet rolls have in common?

They are all media via which the Dutch electorate will receive information about an upcoming referendum on a trade treaty between the EU and Ukraine. Moreover, they are initiatives that have been funded by Dutch taxpayers.

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  • D66 political leader Alexander Pechtold (r) will campaign for a Yes vote (Photo: Bart Schalkwijk)

Although the Dutch prime minister is not planning to do a lot of campaigning, the 2015 law on citizen-enforced referendums says that if such a vote is called, a special committee should distribute subsidies to “initiatives that aim to stimulate public debate”.

Initially, there was some criticism of the speed with which the referendum committee handled requests. Tuesday (1 March) was the last day applicants were able to file their ideas.

Filling in for the interior minister, housing minister Stef Blok said last month that the committee would pay out the grants “as fast as possible”, adding that a month ahead of the 6 April vote is more than enough for a decent campaign.

“I am not the only one in this house with some campaign experience. I would not recommend anyone to have a campaign longer than four weeks,” he told MPs.

As of last Friday (26 February), the committee had handed out €1.8 million in subsidies, which is almost all of the €2 million available. Some 70 percent of the money goes to the Yes and No camps, while 30 percent is available for “neutral” initiatives.

The largest share, €1.5 million, went to organisations, 42 of them. The rest went to 61 private individuals, in batches of no more than €5,000 each.

The group of recipients includes political parties, like the centrist D66 and left-wing Greens, both in the Yes camp, and the eurosceptic animal rights party, in the No camp.

Three gay rights associations have also received grants, between €13,000 and €17,000, to show the impact the association agreement has on Ukraine's gay community.

One of the groups promised to use the money to develop an online tool that helps gay, lesbian, transgender, and intersex voters in determining their choice.

An organisation that develops such voting aid tools for the general public has also received funding to develop one.

Some more unknown political groups also using the funding opportunity.

The 144,000 inhabitants of the municipality Haarlemmermeer will receive flyers in their mailboxes and hear radio commercials calling on them to vote No, thanks to a successful grant application by the local party Forza!, worth €33,273. Forza! has two of the municipal council's 39 seats.

A two-year old political party that has not been elected anywhere in the country acquired €41,780 to do a “city tour” to convince people to vote No. According to a not-so-slick video report, the bus tour has already begun.

The list of recipients also included some other unexpected beneficiaries, which gave the impression that some of the applicants perhaps had opportunistic motives.

It is for example unclear why the foundation European Committee Human Rights Hungarians Central Europe is against the agreement.

The grant money also attracted some highly specialised lobby groups.

A foundation against weapons trafficking received €8,000 to carry out research about the effect of the agreement on “weapons export policy”. Another foundation, specialised in information about nuclear energy, received almost €50,000 to hold two meetings about “EU-Ukraine referendum and nuclear energy” and to publish a newspaper about the vote.

The list of grants given to initiatives by private persons, who are not identified by name, mainly contains grants for people that say they will produce and distribute flyers. Others say they will organise a “cultural afternoon” to introduce Dutch people to Ukraine.

The list also contains some more original methods of informing the public.

One recipient promised in exchange for €1,280 to “passively and actively inform visitors of cafes and shops of the possibility to cast a blank vote”, while another said he or she would “cook with referendum experts to talk about the upcoming referendum”, for €4,433.

A third recipient received €5,000 to inform voters via a quintessentially Dutch medium: rain-covers for bike seats.

By far the most debated recipient is a private company from Arnhem, which managed to convince the referendum committee to grant it €47,973 to “produce, transport, and let students distribute toilet rolls printed with arguments against accession of Ukraine to the EU”.


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